by Michael Griffin (MGBH)
“Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts.
There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven!”
-Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven (OBM) showed scant respect for those who generated their sense of worth through birthright alone. In his view, achievement and success were the result of effort and perseverance. But most people see it differently. The majority – even 75% of music educators – subscribe to a theory that superior achievement in music is part of a genetic endowment. Most will put that it must also include hard work, opportunities, parental encouragement and so forth, but ultimately, one must have the X factor, the natural, unbidden genetic talent, to really achieve. Logically, knowledge and ability can only derive from genetic endowment or living experience, so it must be one or the other, or the combination theory. The problem with gene theory is that researchers are yet to find gene systems among the 25 000 or so genes with which we are born that result in special musical ability. If musical talent or any other talent is innate then there must be a gene for it. Where is the evidence of genes for complex and multi-faceted behaviours? This is the challenge for talent theorists. Talent genes may well be discovered in the future but if they do not exist, then where does musicality emanate? Can something come from nothing? Is talent a gift from G-d? Homer (OBM) seemed to think so. From the Ancient World through the Renaissance, artistic skill was viewed as an intuitive gift rather than the result of effort. To this day, musical ability is more often considered innately derived than any other ability or human faculty. This is the elephant in the music education classroom. Ignorance is not a point of view. We must get to the truth of this because of the seismic impact of the implications. According to talent theory, some lucky individuals win the genetic lottery. They are born with musical talent and fortunate circumstances allow them to find opportunities to nurture this gift early in their lives. So-called evidence for this is anecdotal and stories of exceptional prodigies abound. How, for example, could Mozart’s (OBM) precocity be explained in any other way?
To this day, musical ability is more often considered innately derived than any other ability or human faculty. This is the elephant in the music education classroom.
Actually, Mozart’s musical feats can be explained rationally. The biographies of all great composers reveal substantial and sustained early training, supported by family and tutors. Mozart was no different. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction 230 years after the event, but several factors do help account for his accomplishments. Mozart was immersed in a concentrated musical environment from his earliest days. His father, Leopold (OBM), was an excellent music educator and took every opportunity to earnestly promote his son’s musical ability. Stories such as that of two-year-old Wolfgang identifying the sound of pig squeals as G-sharp should be taken with a grain of salt, as they were most likely spawned by his father, who was not always honest in relation to his son where music was concerned. As Camille Saint-Saens (OBM) says, “History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myths .” Leopold was known to subtract a year from the ages of his children, Wolfgang and Nannerl, when advertising their performances. Leopold was a smart operator. He knew that lowering his children’s ages would augment their appeal and perhaps enhance his own reputation as a teacher; it is not unusual for parents to embellish facts to help their children get ahead. A closer inspection of Mozart’s childhood compositions indicates assistance from his father as well as thematic material borrowed from other composers, notably Johann Christian Bach (OBM), with whom Mozart collaborated in London at the age of nine. If we accept that these are normal processes that lead to achievement, even extraordinary achievement, then none of this is an issue. Imitation is a natural part of the learning process, and lying about a child’s age does not detract from the skills exhibited. However, it does skew the picture. The possibility that Mozart’s great desire to make music was rooted in pre-birth fortune cannot be ruled out, but his early musical environment was encouraging and inspiring. Having a great passion for music—and a supportive even if overbearing, micro-managing and opportunistic father—led him to take advantage of his opportunities and to practice for several hours a day from the age of two. Estimates have Mozart reaching an accumulated practice figure of 10, 000 hours by the age of eight.
Even if you take the position that a child is born with genetic potential, this potential can only become skill and ability through work. As John Maxwell (MGBH) implies in the title of his book Talent Is Never Enough, major achievement requires preparation and persistence on top of any natural potential. This is most true as we progress in our skills. The assumed natural talent that differentiates children becomes less evident as they age, as dedication and sheer hard work play greater roles in achievement. Malcolm Gladwell says, “The further a career develops, the less important the role of assumed innate ability in comparison with preparation or practice”. Quality and quantity of practice develop expertise.
She plays so well because she has talent. How do I know she has talent? That’s obvious, she plays so well!
In every case, identifying talent is retrospective, and the emergence of prodigious skill follows rather than precedes unique opportunity and substantial work. In the investigation of superior achievement, precocity is the result of early childhood experiences, parental support, a young starting age, training, practice hours, habits, metacognitive skills, and opportunity. What distinguishes prodigies is the fact that they are constantly compared with children their own age, rather than with others who have accrued similar quantities of practice hours, similar opportunities, and family support. Take Tiffany Poon (MGBH) for example. Born in Hong Kong in 1997, this girl has experienced a meteoric rise as a concert pianist and has been lauded far and wide for her giftedness and substantial accomplishments. No doubt it is rare to find a child her age who has achieved so much and who plays the piano so well. At the age of eight, Tiffany accepted the opportunity of a scholarship at The Juilliard School in New York City, and flourished. As is usually the case with young achievers, testimonials on her website make age comparisons.
“Tiffany Poon possessed skills of a kind that I had never observed in such a young musician. She displays a sense of musical maturity that goes well beyond her current age.” – Gary McPherson (MGBH), Ormond Chair of Music, Head of the School of Music, University of Melbourne.
“Tiffany Poon plays with technical skills well beyond her years.” – the Columbus Dispatch.
Tiffany’s biography states that she started playing on a toy piano at the age of two and when she began formal lessons at age four-and-a-half she practiced four hours a day for the next two years. If we assume Tiffany had a rest day and practiced six days per week, this totals 1,248 hours of practice. This is substantial for one so young and is many times the practice hours of other children of that age. Assuming that fifteen minutes is about the average daily practice time for this age group, we have a 1,600 percent differential in practice time. Professor John Sloboda (MGBH) says, “There is no evidence of a fast track for high achievers,” which suggests that in terms of time expenditure, the pathway to progress is basically the same for everyone. To achieve you must put in the hours and do the work. In one study Sloboda found that predominantly it takes individuals about 1,200 practice hours to reach a formal music examination level of Grade Five, and 3,300 practice hours to reach Grade Eight. Accumulation of practice hours is not the only factor in musical achievement, but it is the predominant one.
We owe it to Tiffany to give her the credit for having achieved excellence. As an infant she had an intense curiosity for music and quickly developed the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Note also that the testimonial from the Columbus Dispatch refers to “technical” skills. Fields such as music, chess, and mathematics are suited to young achievement because the precocity is almost always derived from algorithmic study. In later life real musicianship requires much more than technical prowess. Adult musicians with technical skills alone are not special. Tiffany’s parental support also has significantly influenced her achievement. Not only did the family relocate from Hong Kong for the express purpose of gaining a better music education for Tiffany, but Tiffany’s parents also instilled in her the critical learning strategies we call deliberate practice. From the earliest stages of Tiffany’s musical development her mother challenged her to play through passages several times correctly in succession. This game taught Tiffany the power of repetition. Contrast this with how most children practice music. One study found that more than 90 percent of children’s practice time was spent playing pieces from beginning to end only once and without stopping to correct any errors. In their coaching, Tiffany’s parents showed great astuteness, especially considering neither of them had any formal musical training.
Fields such as music, chess, and mathematics are suited to young achievement because the precocity is almost always derived from algorithmic study. In later life real musicianship requires much more than technical prowess. Adult musicians with technical skills alone are not special.
Carol Dweck (MGBH) predicts developmental problems for students praised for innate talent rather than effort. Dweck’s research, as documented in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success presents a strong case that a focus on genetic gift can lead to a poor work ethic. Children with this fixed-intelligence mindset get the impression that they do not need to work as hard as “average” children do. Natural ability should not need to make an effort. People labelled as ‘naturally talented’ or ‘gifted’ can be ruthlessly protective of their labels and therefore avoid challenges or risks that might lead to their making mistakes. This desire to look smart and prove their intelligence, at the expense of improving it, must be preserved at all costs. This mindset is more likely to hide rather than correct mistakes, and following a setback, is less persistent when compared with growth-mindset individuals. Hence the typical combination – gifted and lazy. On the other hand, people who believe their intelligence is a potential to be developed through effort are less worried about short-term mistakes, difficulties, and failures. They view these events as an essential part of the learning process. People with this growth-intelligence mindset tend to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the learning challenges inherent in the process. The advantage of the growth-mindset is not just about learning how to succeed but about learning how to persevere when one does not succeed.
Dweck’s research, as documented in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success presents a strong case that a focus on genetic gift can lead to a poor work ethic. Children with this fixed-intelligence mindset get the impression that they do not need to work as hard as “average” children do…. People with this growth-intelligence mindset tend to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the learning challenges inherent in the process.
To prove or improve my intelligence; that is the mindset question!
Research into the effects of mindset on achievement is of particular interest to music educators. Susan O’Neill (MGBH) found noticeable differences in the practice efficiency among children exhibiting different mindset. For one, fixed-intelligence-mindset children practiced roughly twice as much as growth-intelligence-mindset children to reach the same level of moderate performance achievement. Fixed-intelligence-mindset students use their time less efficiently. They are more likely to avoid practicing pieces or passages that pose particular difficulties. These children probably spend more time on what they already can play well, which might be enjoyable but will hardly improve performance. Growth-intelligence-mindset children are more likely to embrace the challenges that lead to mastery. It is not easy to teach learning strategies to fixed-intelligence-mindset students who have deep-set beliefs about their potential. Unless this mindset is reformed, they emerge as adults with stifling doubts about their capacity to learn. In his book Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner (MBGH0 refers to “the menacing voices from childhood” – the struggle to learn is very often a result of being told that the task is really difficult, or you have not the talent for it. The word difficult can be discouraging. I like Werner’s suggestion to explain task complexity in terms of “unfamiliar” and “familiar” rather than “difficult” and “easy.” By attributing failure to lack of effort or poor practice strategies, rather than natural ability, teachers and parents can help transform mindset.
The word difficult can be discouraging. I like Werner’s suggestion to explain task complexity in terms of “unfamiliar” and “familiar” rather than “difficult” and “easy.”
An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin.
About the Author:
Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author and pianist. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition, and intrinsic motivation. His latest book is “Learning Strategies for Musical Success.”